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Kol Nidre - 2010 / 5771

09/10/2010 12:29:26 PM


Rabbi Carey Brown

Recently, the Library of Congress released data about the most frequently watched movies of all time. The winner?  “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s not surprising, considering how often it appears on television, not to mention that it is a masterful story and a joy to watch. Among the many themes in the movie, the one that most resonates with me this year is that it is a story of searching for home. 

We all know the plot line: a young woman named Dorothy is knocked unconscious during a tornado and falls into a deep sleep. While sleeping, Dorothy has a magnificent Technicolor dream. Throughout the dream she longs to return home, but before she can find her way back, she must journey to the Land of Oz.  Dorothy‘s journey to Oz, accompanied by her three companions, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, becomes a legendary quest for wholeness and healing, in which the four travelers seek to acquire the character traits each of them needs most in order to be whole. The Tin Man seeks a heart, the Scarecrow, a brain, and the Cowardly Lion, courage. Though she is not conscious of it as she sets out on her journey, Dorothy needs to find her own inner source of power. It is only when she faces her deepest fears and takes back the power she has been projecting onto powerful others, like the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West, that Dorothy is able to reclaim her own inner strength and find her way home.
Finding our way home is an existential quest. As such, it’s not intrinsically a Jewish search, but it surely resonates with the themes of Yom Kippur. And personally, it is a theme that I have been thinking about a lot, as I consider that next Yom Kippur I will be living in a different place. As most of you know, Gregg, Yael and I will be making our home in Vancouver next summer.
The question, “Where is home?” is really a multi-layered inquiry. On the one hand, it is asking us to go back to our childhood. If we are lucky, our childhood home is a place where we felt safe, warm, and loved. Finding home, in that sense, is trying to replicate those feelings wherever we may be in our lives. For me, going to Minneapolis will always be going home. And I know that is true not only because the places are familiar from growing up, but because it is where my parents reside. It is truly a place that is familiar and safe.
For others, the question “where is home” does not elicit a memory of the past, but is about the present.  The home that we have created for ourselves, is where we are most within our element. Home is how we chose to live our lives or perhaps in whatever setting we might find ourselves.
And still, for others, home is about the future. It is that place toward which we are striving. A desire for wholeness in our lives drives us to work towards a future that we sense will bring us home.
Our Yom Kippur homecoming is a mix of past, present, and future. It is beyond the scope of time. We seek to return home, not with some sense of going back to a memorable past or comfortable present, but to an eternal place of homecoming. We are called to come home to our authentic selves. 
Our authentic self is who we really are at the essence of our being. Your authentic self is not who society says you must be, nor who your mother expects you to be, nor who your boss defines you to be.  Your authentic self is who you know yourself to be deep inside.
There are many factors in our lives that keep us from reaching our authentic self.  Some are stymied by a fear of displeasing others. When we continually say what we perceive others want to hear, we bury our authentic selves and lose a sense of our emotional integrity.
Often “self” is ruled by generations of habit. Perhaps all of the men in the family were doctors, retail was the “family business” or someone comes from a long line of Yankees fans. There is a strong emotional pull and misguided belief that we must live up to external expectations and emulate those who came before, even when deep inside we have other desires for a fulfilled life.
Think about the change in perspective that was necessary to adapt the tenants of feminism. When Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, women were largely expected to find success and identity through their husbands and children. After attending a class reunion of her Smith College class, she found a general unease among her fellow alumnae, and decided to survey American women about their lives. Here is one story she heard from a young homemaker:
I've tried everything women are supposed to do--hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn't leave you anything to think about--any feeling of who you are. I never had any career ambitions. All I wanted was to get married and have four children. I love the kids and Bob and my home. There's no problem you can even put a name to. But I'm desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and putter-on of pants and a bed maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I? [1]
Arriving at a sense of authentic self is a hard thing to do. Psychotherapists make a living helping people try to do just that. And in many ways, approaching teshuvah is a lot like engaging in an honest attempt of self-awareness just like any good therapy regimen.  Teshuvah – often translated as repentance – is really more accurately understood as turning or returning. Just as psychotherapy aims at restoring a sense of psychic wholeness that was once there, but somehow was lost, teshuvah involves a returning to one's true spiritual and ethical nature. 
According to one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, teshuvah is an “opportunity to liberate oneself from the failures of the past and demonstrate that the laws of psychological determinism need not control human destiny. [2] Teshuvah is a process, therefore, of self-renewal and self-creation that comes about as a result of reflection and a powerful resolution to effect real change in one's life.
While teshuvah can be understood as a psychological homecoming, let us not forget that it is a spiritual homecoming as well. So, where is home? Where is our spiritual center? This is a question that Jewish texts have been attempting to answer for ages. 
There is a story in the Talmud. [3] about the varied ways Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood the place that would become the spiritual center of the Jewish people: Mount Moriah, the site of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Abraham called it har, a mountain -- an awesome place which would challenge his descendents, test their resolve, and evoke greatness within them.
Isaac, called it sadeh, a field where one might, in the context of undisturbed nature, seek solitude, and access a relationship with the Infinite One. 
Jacob designated this holiest space on earth as bayit, -- a home. In referring to the Temple mount as bayit, Jacob defined its essence. He described the place where God and man would meet, as a place of return, a “home.” While Abraham and Isaac looked outwards, Jacob focused inward. 
This place, har habayit, the Temple Mount, is where Jews have always looked as our people’s spiritual center. We have gazed in its direction for centuries offering our prayers. I can remember very clearly an insight I had six years ago when I had the honor of leading High Holiday services for the Reform community of Bombay, India. As I was reviewing the service with the congregation’s leadership one of the members said to me, “Rabbi, whenever we read a kaddish, it is our custom for the congregation to stand and face west.” 
“West?!” As the surprise registered on my face I realized, “Of course! India is East of Jerusalem!” I loved the imagery that rose to my mind in that moment: all of the Jewish people turned toward another with Jerusalem, this mountain, at the center, pulling us into spiritual focus.    
In ancient times, on Yom Kippur, the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount to encounter God by pronouncing God’s Name. That moment of intimacy is reenacted in the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy. We do not recite it in our Reform tradition because the idea of intercessory prayer, not mention the sacrificial elements, are not in line with our theology. But there is something about the intimacy of that moment when the High Priest encountered God that is quite powerful still today. In atoning for the wrongdoings of the people, the High Priest was able to enter God’s abode and approach that most spiritual sense of home through teshuvah.  
We don’t go to the Holy of Holies anymore as in ancient days – since the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood dissolved, and the ineffable Name of God became just that – ineffable. But on Yom Kippur we each attempt to come to our bayit – our spiritual home – to encounter God. 
The ultimate homecoming, Judaism teaches, is death. In Ecclesiastes we read, “As the dust returns to the ground, the soul returns to God who gave it.”[4]  The imagery of Yom Kippur is intended to serve as a rehearsal for our own death.  We fast from food, drink, sexual relations, and washing as a way to detach ourselves from the physical body, and experience the nakedness of our existence without distraction. Some have the custom of wearing a kittel, the white robe that a traditional Jew will be buried in. For the whole day of Yom Kippur, we act as if it is our last day, our only day to face the Truth, forgive ourselves and each other, remember who we are and why we were born.  There is no time for regret, worry, fear, no time to put off facing the truth.  On Yom Kippur each moment takes on an urgency. We walk through most days only half-alive. Yom Kippur, like every real encounter with Death, urges us into the fullness of living.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, the physician and storyteller well known for her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, wrote a beautiful insight on the power of encountering death to transform life. She tells of how she is continually surprised by how, in the presence of death, she finds a place of refuge from those things that are not genuine in our culture and in ourselves. She writes,
“…many people who are dying have taken their masks off and let go of lifelong roles and self-expectations, ways of being that are not genuinely their own. At first they may let go of these things because they do not have the strength to hang on to them, but later they let go because it has become clear at last that these things do not really matter. They have come home to themselves. In their presence, we can come home to ourselves as well.”[5]
I find that one of the most meaningful aspects that I experience in my work as a rabbi is my regular contact with death. I know it sounds strange and I don’t mean this in a morbid way or to minimize the losses that so many have experienced. Each time I receive a call that there has been a death in the congregation I wish it were not so – for the family and friends who have to confront the loss and live through the anguish of mourning. But death is a part of life and in walking side by side with those encountering death and dying, I have learned incredible lessons about living.
From dying people in this congregation, I have learned about loving, about sharing values and wisdom with others, about finding time to appreciate the beauty of the world around us, about sharing true feelings with people we love, about forgiveness, about priorities, about actually taking time to talk about fears and hopes, about God and about faith.
Yom Kippur calls us to encounter death in a way that does not pull us into the depths of despair but into the heights of living. On this day we have the opportunity to examine our souls with our deepest fears and questions in hand and then emerge with a renewed spirit into life. 
During these next 24 hours, let us allow ourselves to encounter our mortality in a way that challenges us to emerge with a renewed sense of living. Let us find what calls us to live in a way that reflects the essential core of who we are. It is never too late to become acquainted with our authentic self. It is never too late to come home.
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva – Allow us the space to return to you, O God, and we will return to ourselves.
Ken Yehi Ratzon
[1] Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique,” 1963, pp. 64-65
[2] “The Living Covenant,” Rabbi David Hartman, p. 75
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 88a
[4] Ecclesiastes 12:7
[5] Rachel Naomi Remen, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” 2000, pp. 166-167

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782